A Proper Fall Hike

Last week Ruth wrote about our trip to Cloudland Canyon State Park, in northwest Georgia.  This week, I’m filling in a few details on where we stayed, as well as describing another hike we took in the park.

I don’t remember where I first heard about Cloudland Canyon, but the thing that stuck in my memory was that the park offers an option to stay in a yurt.  Late last spring I did some research, and found that (1) there are actually 10 yurts available, and (2) you have to plan months in advance to get one.   I started banging away on the reservations site, and after many attempts was successful in finding a yurt that would be available on a weekend that suited our schedule.  So, back in April, I booked a yurt for November, the weekend before Thanksgiving.  It’s pretty rare for us to plan a vacation seven months in advance!

12yurt_10So, what’s a yurt, you ask?  In its simplest form, it’s a round, roofed tent, typically built on a wooden platform.  At Cloudland Canyon, they are a compromise between tent camping and staying in a cottage.  Let’s start with the setting.  The 10 yurts are in their own yurt village, in a cul-de-sac off the main park road.  They are all nestled in the woods, sited back about 100 feet from the parking areas, with trees partially screening them from each other.  Our yurt (#10) was ADA-compliant, with a level gravel walkway leading from the parking area to the front entrance.  04yurt_stairsOther yurts are sited downhill from the parking areas, with broad steps leading down to them.  There’s a firepit with a grate and a couple of chairs outside the entrance, a water spigot, and a small wooden deck  leading to the front door.  Wait, you say — a door on a tent?  These yurts are supported by a sturdy wooden frame, with a door and windows framed in.  The doors can be locked, but the windows are roll-up flaps in the tent, with built-in screening.

thumb_img_4358_1024The yurts are quite spacious.  They sleep six, in two futons and one double bed that’s the top half of a rustic bunk bed.  You’ll need to bring your own linens.  They have hardwood floors, and are wired for electricity, with several outlets available around the perimeter.  There are a few more rustic furniture pieces — a shelving unit, a bar with some barstools, a small table with an inlaid checkerboard, and a floor lamp.  thumb_img_4359_1024For climate control, there’s a ceiling fan mounted below the skylight at the top of the yurt, and of particular interest to us, a small electric space heater.   Though the walls are fabric, they’re actually fairly thick and quilted, so they offer a certain amount of insulation.  We noticed that the fabric is tightly connected to the platform, so there were no gaps to be seen, and when the window flaps are rolled down and held in place with velcro the yurt is draft-free.

01yurt_deckAs an added bonus, the yurts have a large back deck with Adirondack chairs and a little side table.  We’re not usually fans of this style of chair, but these were surprisingly comfortable, with curved backs that made it easy to relax into them and admire the leaves (and stars, later that night).

Though there is a water spigot in the front of the yurt, there is no indoor plumbing.  The yurt village has a centrally-located comfort station with indoor facilities and a gender-neutral restroom, complete with a single shower stall each in the men’s and ladies’ restrooms.  The restrooms are heated, and were spotless.  We were probably at the farthest distance from the comfort station, which meant we had to trudge around 100 yards on the paved yurt village road to take care of the necessaries.  There’s parking right in front of the comfort station if you’d rather not make the walk in the dark.  The yurt village also includes a large picnic shelter and a playground, so it’s well-suited for family camping.

The checkin process was easy.  We stopped at the visitor’s center by the park entrance and were briefed on the codes to open the door and the gates to the camping area, should we need to pass through outside of the normal operating hours.   The welcome center doubles as the camp store, with the usual mix of souvenirs, camping equipment, and a tiny bit of food (well, ice cream and cold drinks).   Shortly after our arrival at the yurt, Cindy the campground host drove up in a golf cart to introduce herself and answer any questions.  She stays in a camper in the central area of the village, so there’s typically on-site assistance should there be any problems.

Though this was our first visit to the yurt village, it’s obvious that our stay was not a typical one.  Most notably, as Cindy pointed out, we had the entire village to ourselves.  Though all 10 of the yurts had been previously booked, everyone had backed out on our weekend.  There were four factors at play: (1) due to the ongoing drought, the park’s creeks were dry, which meant the waterfalls were also dry; (2) as a side result of the drought, there were wildfires in the general area that could potentially affect air quality; (3) as a consequence of the drought and the wildfire risk, open fires were not allowed in the park; and (4) the weather forecast called for some cold temperatures on the second night of our stay.  It was a bit odd being the only ones in the campground, but on the other hand it meant we were the King and Queen of Yurt Village, free to traipse down to the comfort station in our pajamas.  We knew in advance about the ban on the open fires and planned accordingly, and we practically never caught a whiff of any wildfire smoke.  We didn’t expect the creeks to be flowing, and as for the cold, we had the space heater, and had also brought sleeping bags, on the advice of the park.  As a point of reference, on our first night the temperature dropped down into the low 40s outside, and the space heater practically roasted us.  On the second night, the temps dropped into the low 20s, and the space heater did its best but it got fairly chilly in the yurt.  We were glad to have the sleeping bags, and were perfectly comfortable overnight.  I’d guess the interior temperature dropped into the high 40s/low 50s, but after quickly dressing and putting on a pot of coffee I didn’t mind it a bit.

When we planned the trip, we knew that our cooking options would be limited because of the fire ban.  We’re used to having cold breakfasts anyway, and typically pack lunches for our hikes, so the only problem to solve, food-wise, was supper.  Again, a little internet research led to two terrific finds — the Canyon Grill, located less than a mile from the park entrance, and Thatcher’s Barbecue and Grill, located down the mountain in Trenton.  We had reservations on Friday night at the Canyon Grill, and I’m glad we booked a table in advance.  Though it’s off the beaten path, it’s a well-known foodie hangout for folks from Chattanooga and even Atlanta.  It’s known for its steaks and seafood, and based on our meals, deservedly so.  This isn’t a food blog, so I’ll spare you the details, but I will say I had their grilled red cabbage as a side, and wow!  I’m not a grilled veggie kind of guy, but this might change my mind.  One quirk of the place — it’s in unincorporated Dade County, so the Canyon Grill can’t serve alcohol.  However, you’re encouraged to bring your own, and there’s not a corkage fee.  We grabbed some wine glasses on the way to our table on what looked like an enclosed porch, and had a tasty upscale meal in a casual environment.  Be warned, though: sides aren’t included with the entree, and if you order an appetizer things can add up very quickly.  It was worth every penny, though.

We’re big fans of barbecue and love trying local places, and Thatcher’s fit the bill perfectly.  They’ve been around for six years in two locations, and recently (February 2016) expanded into a larger space in downtown Trenton on the de facto town square.   We went for the pork and brisket with the obligatory fried sides — in this case, the somewhat unusual pickle spears and green tomatoes.  Those count as vegetables, right?  Like most barbecue places, it was easy on the budget, and the joint was pretty busy.

turkeysAfter all that eating, we’d need to get in a few miles on the trail.  Ruth has already described our Sunday morning hike on the West Rim Loop trail, so I’ll tell you about our Saturday hike.  The day started well, with Ruth spotting four deer in the yurt village on the way to do her necessaries, and as we drove to the welcome center we were briefly delayed by a flock of wild turkeys crossing the road.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many wild turkeys in one place!  The purpose of the trip to the welcome center was to inquire about the Bear Creek Backcountry trail, a 7.1 mile jaunt that requires a permit and is subject to closure.  Sadly, it turns out that it was closed, so we asked about an alternative hike.  The ranger recommended the Sitton’s Gulch trail, a six-mile out and back that runs along the canyon floor.  Knowing that we’d be walking around the rim the next day, it seemed like a good idea to explore the bottom of the canyon too, so off we went.

It was a short drive to the main trailhead for the park, over on the east rim of the canyon.    This is the oldest part of the park, first developed in 1939 by the CCC.  This is the main day use area for the park, with several picnic shelters, a campground and cabins, an interpretive center, and overlooks into the canyon.  Cloudland Canyon is at the junction of two gulches formed by Daniel Creek to the west and Bear Creek to the east.  Think of it as an upside-down Y, with the day use area being at the intersection.  We started at the trailhead and walked to the east rim of the canyon to stare goggle-eyed at the impressive views.   It was a beautiful day, with clouds scooting across the sky to produce dramatic lighting effects on the west rim.

The paved Overlook trail and the Waterfalls trail leave from the main trailhead, splitting at the canyon rim with the Overlook trail heading off to the right and the Waterfalls trail switching to a dirt surface off to the left.   22cabinWe took the Waterfalls trail, and within a couple hundred yards we passed some cabins off to the left, and then the yellow-blazed trail turned to the right and started its descent into the canyon.  It’s a gradual decline on a well-graded trail at this point, turning to hug the east side of the canyon wall past fractured sandstone formations.  One prominent rock, which we later found out was called Turtle Rock, juts out over the trail.

Shortly after Turtle Rock is where the fun begins.  There’s about a thousand-foot change in elevation from the top of the canyon to the bottom, and the bulk of the descent is made via a series of staircases.  28stepsGoing downhill wasn’t so bad, but we knew that the approximately 600 steps back up were going to be a challenge!  Overall, the trail was beautifully maintained and the metal stairs had sturdy wooden rails.  After just a handful of those steps we arrived at the spur trail to Cherokee Falls, but since we knew it was dry we decided we’d check it out on the way back.

31foliageThe trail wound slowly downward, past sheer rock walls with gorgeous fall foliage off to the left.  I remember gazing at the trees and thinking, “At last, a proper fall hike!”  It seems like we didn’t see much fall color on our hikes in October, and maybe it was the striking contrast with the rock walls, but I thought the trees just popped on this hike.

32daniel_creek_bridgeIn less than half an hour we reached the bottom of the canyon, where a wooden bridge twisted its way over the (mostly) dry Daniel Creek.  The turnoff to Hemlock Falls takes off to the left before the bridge, but again we decided to visit the waterfall on the return trip.  We headed across the bridge and descended one final set of stairs before coming to the official south trailhead for the Sitton’s Gulch trail.  The creek drops right below the bridge, and a tiny trickle of water flowed over the rocks there in a sad little mockery of a waterfall in wetter times.

34sittons_gulch_footbedSitton’s Gulch is formed by the confluence of Daniel and Bear Creeks, and is named for an early settler who operated a mill on what is now known as Sitton’s Gulch Creek.  The blue-blazed trail is very wide and well graded, though it undulates a little for around the first mile.  36dry_creekThe trail followed the dry creek, leveling out as the valley widens.  Just before two miles into the hike, a side trail took off to the left, and another did the same about .3 miles later.  We stuck with the main trail, and soon finished in a parking area at the north trailhead.   42changing_roomThere were a couple of wooden structures on either side of the trail, which we assumed were privies.  It turns out that they weren’t — instead, they were changing rooms.  It seemed odd at first, but signage on site explained that there are nearby caves for which there are guided tours, so the changing rooms were a place to climb out of (or into) your caving clothes.

This talk of caves was intriguing.  We knew there were two caves in the general vicinity, and deduced that the earlier side trails might lead to them.  43blocked_cave_entranceWe had no intention of entering the caves, however.  A permit is required, and we didn’t have the proper equipment or training for such an adventure.  We took the side trails and clambered up along the bluff, spotting the sealed entrance to Case Cave and another narrow hole that may have led somewhere, but we’ll leave the spelunking to the professionals.  Speaking of which, Georgia Girl Guides offers various tours of a cave in the park and another nearby cave, so check them out if you’re looking for a fun activity while you’re staying at Cloudland Canyon.

We rejoined the Sitton’s Gulch trail and backtracked our way up the creek, stopping to marvel at the high canyon walls and knowing that our final destination was at the top!  We made our way back to the bridge, and this time continued upstream a short distance to check out the bone-dry Hemlock Falls.  It’s a shame that we missed it during full flow.  It’s a 90-foot waterfall, probably about 40 feet wide in full flow.

We returned to the Waterfalls trail and began the brutal ascent of the 600 stairs.  It’s really not all that bad — there are frequent landings and a few benches along the way, so you can take your time.  Near the top, we took the spur trail to Cherokee Falls, which was also pretty much dry.  It did have a puny little flow oozing down the wall, so there was a black plunge pool at the bottom of this 60-foot waterfall.  We snapped a few photos, Ruth reclined on a basking rock for a bit, and then we headed up on the trail back to the top.

58overlook_trail_viewWhile we were there, we took a moment to wander down the Overlook trail to one of the “formal” overlooks of the canyon, and also stopped in at the interpretive center for a few minutes.  It’s cozy, with a display of taxidermy animals and some tanks with turtles and a corn snake.  It’s staffed by a naturalist, so if you want in-depth information about the flora and fauna in the park, it’s the place to visit.

All in all, it was a proper fall hike.   We had beautiful blue skies, a bracing wind, impressive rock formations, and colorful fall foliage.  What more could you ask for?  Well, a little water would have been nice, so we’ll just have to plan a return trip in the spring to check out the wildflowers.

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